Cherry Blossom, an afterthought

Esha Chaudhuri reflects on the aftermath of events building up to and denigrating the long-awaited Fest of the year.

By Esha Chaudhuri

The Cherry Blossom Festival hinges on the scenic beauty of the state’s bloom of the year. As the city gets coloured pink, tents, lighting and banners are hung up on the most awaited festival of the year. With all eyes pinned on Shillong hosting multiple crowd pulling events beginning with music shows, concerts, and the literary fest, what transpired in the peripheries of the states’ borders also brought to the fore many issues for deliberation. Sunday Shillong engages with some of the voices of the state and beyond to understand the larger context of the brewing events in context of the festival.

Capitalising on seasonal pitch

Almost as naturally hued pink, the ideation of the organisers with regards to the organising has been vouched for by attendees and panellists present at the first day of the Literary Fest.

As the Festival is an ambitious one, competing with the likes of Nagaland’s HornBill and Arunachal’s Ziro, one would not hear of such a breakdown in the latter two.

They say, public memory is short lived, but not when the dominant narrative is recurrent in close time frames. Not too long ago, the Hills festival also bore a similar fate after the October 28 rally fiasco sending waves of fear across the heart of the city, and eventually resulting in a low turnout. The most recent Me’gong festival too that was to be held on December 1st to 3rd was initially called off after the incident at Mukroh, West Jaintia Hills, however, recent reports indicate that the festival will be now be hosted on the second week of the month, but speculations regarding the Danish band, Michael Learns To Rock(MLTR) remains unconfirmed.

“I enjoyed day one and was overwhelmed by the audience, and the setting beside the lake, but the very next day was a comedown. This, after the chief minister speaks of Meghalaya to be among the top 10 states on the previous day, doesn’t send out the right message.” thinks, senior journalist, author, and panellist at the Literary Festival, Sanjoy Hazarika.

Sharing his views on the unfurling of events, Managing Director of Rockski EMG the Event Management company managing the fest, Jason Manners surmises, “From an organiser’s  point of view, it’s the hardest pill we’ve had to swallow. Having the biggest festival project of our lives cancelled two days before show day is something that no organiser is prepared for. It was arguably the biggest Music Festival lineup of 2022 in India. We had everyone flying in from Bollywood celebrities, to Major label Executives and Billboard chart topping artists.”

Elaborating on the scope of losses incurred, Manners says, “We are still assessing the losses. If the festival had been a success, it would have been the first festival that would’ve earned revenue instead of costing the government money. However, we had to surrender all the sponsorships generated and the ticket sales had to be refunded. There were more than 20,000 tickets sold until two days before the event, 90% of whom were tourists. It is estimated that 60,000 would have shown up on all 3 days of the festival and 40,000 tourists in all. The state has lost revenue upwards of 100 crores from the spending the tourists would have incurred while they were here in the state with all their stay, travel, food and festival expenses.”

Vocalising on the intent behind such fests, social activist, Agnes Kharshiing says,

“These festivals are decided to silence the voices. Most of such fests are a result of  diverted funds or loans from international funders. A clean government should upload the decisions, plans, and funds to the public domain, so that people get a clear picture; why there aren’t funds for proper roads, bridges, and infrastructure of schools as well as widespread inflation of essential commodities.”

Calling these events a classist affair, Kharshiing adds, “Here in Meghalaya, we see the poor cannot come to these fests. Recently, I saw that Wards Lake was covered so that no one could take a peek and the entry fees were exorbitant. A taxi driver told me how can anyone enter when the entry fee was 899 rupees? Fests should be organic, not  allowing political agents to suppress the farmers, employment, services, artists, talents as their agents select their own.”

Unignorable political backdrop

After the first day of the grand take off, the killing of 5 villagers from Mukhroh in Meghalaya and a forest guard from Assam led to the cancellation of events that were set for the remaining two days of the festival. As the issue turned politically heated, pressure groups and citizens were seen protesting and taking to the streets causing the entire state to arrive at a shutdown. The otherwise hustle bustle of the hub of Shillong also came to a standstill. Any layperson would ask why? This has been an understated and pitiful reality of Shillong whenever met with a circumstance of political tension.

Commenting on the cancellation of the fest after the first day, editor of The Shillong Times and panellist at the Literary Festival, Patricia Mukhim states, “In any state of India or any part of the world incidents can happen that can throw law and order into a tizzy. We cannot keep everything on hold for fear of a breakdown of law and order. The law and order machinery has to gear up to face such situations better and ensure that no one takes the law in their hands. The fact that people who create violence get away with impunity is problematic. It suggests a deficiency in managing law and order. It is unfortunate that the Litfest was short-circuited because of the fear of a backlash. Otherwise it was a good opportunity to discuss the incident at Mukroh with an open mind and without rancour.”

“Issues are serious but the power of money buries them and later flares up causing disturbance and instability. Some try to get mileage from such issues by capitalising on it for their political gain at the cost of violence and deaths of citizens. The October rally spearheaded by The Federation of Khasi, Jaintia, Garo People (FKJGP) and Mukroh incidents are unfortunate and are the face of the devil politics promoting hatred, violence, terror among people. However, if dedicated officials work by the spirit of the Constitution ‘we the people’, then lives of people will be protected.” states, Kharshiing.

However, the course of events took a sharp turn when containment measures sought were met in absolutism with cellular network and internet suspended. While some may argue that given the propensity of the situation it was a temporary solution, however, others thought differently.

“Borders shutting down, stalling movement of cars, affecting and stopping the supply chain sends a bad signal to tourists and investors. Principally, I’m not in favour of suspension of internet and mobile network, but perhaps the government felt a pressing need.” says Hazarika.

On a similar note, Mukhim asserts, “Internet suspension has become the easiest way out for the MDA Government. It shows that the Government is in a state of unpreparedness and is using a short-cut method to bring down violence. But despite the internet ban there were violations of peace. People even stormed the Civil Hospital and beat up people at random. Internet suspension is a knee-jerk reaction. Shillong has seen violence in the past and therefore to be unprepared to face such violence reflects poor governance.”

(De)spirit of Fests?

The series of occurrences one after another, from people taking to the streets, vandalising public property, manhandling members from the police fraternity and physically injuring officers, sporadic incidents of stone pelting and burning down of citizens’ vehicles left a incorrigible scar in the minds, souls and image of the city that was supposedly holding a festival. What a sight to behold!

Most importantly, such episodes leave people belonging to the city and state in dismay.

Expressing the quantum of loss, Manners states, “We (organisers) strive to go that extra mile with our efforts and we were able to put in enough effort into Cherry Blossom this year and even got the BBC to agree to come down and stream the festival to the UK audience. In fact, the Mega Music Contest was supposed to launch some local artists into international stardom with big Music label Execs and International Festival promoters on the judging panel.”

“For us, it’s not another music festival, we are also talent managers and talent promoters and it was a great opportunity to push our local talent out there and explore the world.” expresses, Manners.

Performing Artist alongside Guest Artist Nepzone and Gavin-E, Youngg Natee says, “When I heard the news (on Mukroh), I was shocked and had a feeling of everything getting cancelled. We were prepared and were ready to perform, so that was hard for me to digest but at the same time, I was sad about those who lost their lives.”

“It is natural for any artist to feel disappointed, and so was I, realising that my preparation and hard work would now go to waste. However, I hold no grudges against the organisers as they were helpless too.” conveys Co-artist for a duet performance with Youngg Natee, Shubham Thapa (aka Nep Zone) who was to perform on November 26.

Student of Standard IX, Wansukh L, shared her desire to attend some of the events from the itinerary, however, it was deterred by the timing of the final examinations as well as concerns of safety.

Mumbai-based Indian English poet, novelist and Guest speaker at the Lit fest, Jerry Pinto remarks, “The festival was great. The events were well attended. The audiences were engaged and attentive. That it was cut short was a great pity but I believe that the government acted out of an abundance of caution for those present and a delicacy of feeling for those bereaved.”

On an endnote, Mukhim observes, “Meghalaya’s only source of livelihood outside the government so far is tourism. It’s also a livelihood that people, including the rural populace have learnt to adapt to and are actually doing quite well in. Even though the unfolding of incidents was unexpected, we cannot suspend all other activities as they have to carry on alongside.”

Unsuccessful culmination of fests, leave the organisers’ and attendees’ spirits marred. Whether its a jinx or victim of unforeseen circumstances, is a riddle that will hopefully see an unfolding. Just like in the popular show, ‘Game of Thrones’ the famous dialogue that echoes through the 8 seasons ‘winter is coming’ signifying the heralding of the white walkers or the evil forces that turn everything to snow; similarly, with the advent of winter in the state, an air of uncertainty looms large with the current crisis boiling up to the season finale of the state with elections!

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